Menahot, Chapter Ten, Mishnah One



The tenth chapter deals with the Omer.

In order to understand this chapter we should explain what was one of the biggest debates between the Pharisees and Sadducees—the date of Shavuot. The Torah states that one begins to count the omer “from the day after the Sabbath.” This was interpreted by the Sadducees to mean that the omer was offered on the day after the Sabbath during Pesah. Thus Shavuot, which fell seven weeks later, was always on Sunday. The Sadducees never had to address how to harvest the omer barley on the Sabbath, because in their calendar it was always harvested on the day following the Sabbath. The Pharisees held that “from the day after the Sabbath” refers to the second day of Pesah. This could be on the Sabbath and thus Shavuot could potentially fall on any day of the week.  

While there are many possible reasons why this debate was so prominent in the polemics between these two groups, it is possible that Sabbath observance was one of the main issues. We know that the Dead Sea Sect was extremely scrupulous in Sabbath observance and seems to have done anything to avoid any possible desecration of the Sabbath. In their calendar, holidays never fell on the Sabbath. The Dead Sea Sect’s halakhic system is often similar to that of the Sadducees. It is therefore possible that the Sadducees shaped their calendar to avoid having to face the prospect of reaping the omer barley on Shabbat. At the least, we can be certain that to the Sadducees there was never a problem of harvesting the omer barley on Shabbat. In contrast, the Pharisees and later the rabbis were not bothered by this.
In our mishnah we may seem some echo of this ancient debate.  


Mishnah One

1)      Rabbi Ishmael says: On Shabbat the omer was taken out of three seahs [of barley] and on a weekday out of five.

a)      But the sages say: whether on Shabbat or on a weekday it was taken out of three seahs.

2)      Rabbi Hanina the vice-high priest says: on Shabbat it was reaped by one man with one sickle into one basket, and on a weekday it was reaped by three men into three baskets and with three sickles.

a)      But the sages say: whether on Shabbat or on a weekday it was reaped by three men into three baskets and with three sickles. 



Section one: In this section, there is a debate concerning how much flour they sifted in order to get the tenth of sifted flour needed for the omer. When the 16th of Nissan fell on Shabbat, they would use three seahs of flour. There is a debate over how much barley was used during the week. According to Rabbi Ishmael, they would use five seahs, so that the barley would be more finely refined. The other rabbis disagree and claim that the procedure on Shabbat was the same as that on the weekday—three seahs. In other words, according to Rabbi Ishmael on Shabbat they would use less barley so that less sifting would have to be done, since sifting is prohibited on Shabbat. In contrast, the other sages say that the same amount was used regardless of whether it was Shabbat or not.

Section two: In this section, there is a debate concerning the reaping procedure. When the omer was reaped on a weekday, all agree that it was reaped by three people, using three sickles, into three baskets. They debate with regard to how it was reaped on Shabbat. According to Rabbi Hanina, who was vice-high priest (not the high priest of vice J) on Shabbat, fewer people did the reaping in order to minimize Shabbat desecration. The sages again disagree, insisting that the procedure on the Shabbat is the same as that performed during the week.

In my opinion, behind these two debates is a remnant of the old Sadducean/Pharisaic debate. While Rabbi Ishmael and Rabbi Hananya admit that the 16th of Nissan can fall on Shabbat, meaning they use a Pharisaic calendar, they still want to minimize the conflict between harvesting the omer and the Sabbath. The other rabbis insist that this is no conflict at all, and that on Shabbat the omer is harvested in the exact same way as it is every other day.